Book Review – In Our Time

In Our Time

Ernest Hemingway



‘Inside on a wooden bunk lay a young Indian woman. She had been trying to have her baby for two days. All the old women in the camp had been helping her. The men had moved up off the road to sit in the dark and smoke out of range of the noise she made. She screamed just as Nick and the two Indians followed his father and Uncle George into the shanty. She lay in the lower bunk, very big under a quilt. Her head was turned to one side. In the upper bunk was her husband. He had cut his foot very badly with an axe three days before. He was smoking a pipe. The room smelled very bad.’


After reading the brilliant but lengthy Napoleon the Great and studying PhD literature on Scottish Gypsy Travellers for a year, I needed a little light relief. This came in the form of some short stories from Ernest Hemingway, an author who must feature near the top of any greatest-writer-of-short-fiction list. I had previously read very little Hemingway but decided to kick off with his 1924 collection ‘In Our Time’.

Hemingway is something of a rock star in the literary world. He socialised with the likes of James Joyce, Pablo Picasso, and F. Scott Fitzgerald in Paris in the roaring twenties – not a bad sounding board for any first drafts of which you’re not quite sure. Nor did Hemingway have any shortage of life experience with which to inform his work. Ambulance driver in World War 1, travel writer for the Toronto Star, bullfighting aficionado, and multiple plane crash survivor are all roles which provide rich material for fiction. Perhaps most celebrated for his works ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’ and ‘The Old Man and the Sea’, Ernest Hemingway was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954 and took his own life in 1961.

In our time 2

I found Hemingway’s prose jarring at first. Short, declarative sentences advance the narrative but seem to leave little room for emotion or character exploration. This is prose shorn of all the trimmings – no fat, little punctuation, and not an adverb within a hundred miles. ‘Indian Camp’, the first story in the book, is a perfect example of this. I was initially lukewarm on Hemingway’s style, which I considered lacking emotion, until I understood what he was doing. The American writer ascribes to ‘iceberg theory’. This dictates that a writer should focus upon events on the surface of the story, and leave the deeper themes open to the implicit interpretation of the reader. An example of this is in the prose quoted above. Another writer could fluff this section out to 500 words, exploring gender culture, marriage, and socio-economic issues. Instead, Hemingway prompts the reader to do the legwork for him. What resulted was a more rewarding experience as I put together the pieces for myself.

My two favourite stories bookended the volume. In ‘Indian Camp’ and ‘Big Two-Hearted River’ Hemingway uses Iceberg Theory to perfection. In the latter, a reader might miss the primary narrative altogether, so eloquent is Hemingway’s depiction of a fishing trip in the countryside. In both of these stories, the protagonist is Nick Adams. Nick is a semi-autobiographical mechanism with which Ernest Hemingway explores America. His status as such ensures that the modern reader is able to see the world through Hemingway’s eyes, a fascinating prospect and one which provides Hemingway with the opportunity for direct social commentary.

‘In Our Time’ was an entertaining lesson for me as a writer of short fiction. The age-old advice of ‘show, don’t tell’ was given a new dimension for me. Hemingway’s miserly approach to word count made my own prose seem clumsy and pretentious and my trusty red biro will go through first drafts with Ernest in mind in the future.

***Thanks for reading. Find my other reviews below…***

Andrew Roberts – Napoleon the Great

Emily Bronte – Wuthering Heights

Margaret Atwood – The Handmaid’s Tale

Kamila Shamsi – Home Fire

Annie Proulx – Brokeback Mountain

Anthony Doerr – All the Light We Cannot See

Ellipsis: Three magazine

Harper Lee – To Kill a Mockingbird

Jon McGregor – Reservoir 13

Colson Whitehead – The Underground Railroad

Amor Towles – A Gentleman in Moscow

Matthew Richardson is a writer of short stories. His work has featured in Gold Dust magazine, Literally Stories, Near to the Knuckle, McStorytellers, Penny Shorts, Soft Cartel, Whatever Keeps the Lights On, and Shooter magazine. He is an absentee member of the Glasgow Writers Group, a PhD student at the University of Dundee, a lucky husband, and a proud father.

Not necessarily in that order

31 thoughts on “Book Review – In Our Time

  1. Oh dear… you’ve stimulated my reading addiction in a big way here… 😁. Now I want to read this one next instead of the other ten books I’m halfway through.

    I’m a huge fan of Hemingway’s writing, but A Moveable Feast and The Sun Also Rises are the only ones I’ve read cover to cover so far. I loved both of those… and I feel my writing became better from having read them.

    You sum everything up so perfick 👌 here 👏👍

    Very inspiring Matthew 📖

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Totally! Yes sun also rises, I put some ramblings about it on my github blog (earliest entries, 2017, the post is called “pretty” but maybe some spoilers, you know how I am)… as you may know he goes to spain, travelling through france in that one, his main character is impotent, in love with a beautiful but somewhat tragic socialite, I faltered a bit in the second quarter or so if I remember right but picked up again during the fishing trip, that part was my favourite, then there are the bullfights and all their symbolism… he is a true master of the iceberg that’s for sure

        Liked by 1 person

      2. p.s. pleeeeease share your wisdom on how you stick to reading a book

        p.p.s. A Moveable Feast is the true must-read for writers if you haven’t read it already — most of the tips that writing gurus quote from Hemingway come from that autobiographical novel, I’m sure, and he talks about many of the gang in that book – Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound… he mentions snippets of his writing process and the reason for the title of the book is just beautiful… plus it was his last “novel” actually amassed bits of manuscript by his fourth (and last) wife Mary even though it featured mostly his first wife Hadley and his and Mary’s baby son John…. seems very beautiful full circle

        Liked by 2 people

  2. I enjoyed your review. You captured Hemingway. I also echo ‘Nadine’ in encouraging you to read ‘A Moveable Feast’ asap. I have read it three times and I save it up as a special treat during the travelling required for the Melbourne International Film Festival.

    Liked by 2 people

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